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GAVIN AITCHISON raises a glass to a fine new ale from Ampleforth.
IF THERE is a promised land for beer drinkers, it lies in the fields of rural Belgium. There, in the country’s Benedictine monasteries, brewing flourishes in its purest and most enchanting form.
Between prayers, within the grounds of ancient communities and abbeys, the diligent monks produce complex, strong beers, arguably finer than any others on the planet.
Now, right here in Yorkshire, similar mastery is at work. The community at Ampleforth Abbey in the North York Moors – already famed for its cider – has teamed up with Little Valley Brewery at Hebden Bridge to produce an English Benedictine beer, thus restoring a tradition extinguished hundreds of years ago, following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
Father Wulstan, the procurator at Ampleforth, and Wim van der Spek, the brewer at Little Valley, have been the driving forces behind the project. The monks came up with the idea, to restore the old art and to boost their income stream, and Little Valley have brought it to fruition.
The result is Ampleforth Abbey Beer: a tremendous, rich, fragrant, brown beer, a Belgian-style ‘Double’, with an ABV of seven per cent and great depth of character.
It boasts the dried fruit and spice flavours of a carefully crafted Christmas cake, and has a robust, malty backbone from start to finish.
Samples have crept out under the radar, earning glowing feedback at the recent Malton Food Lovers Festival, and it should be readily available after the official launch later this month, most easily in York at the House of the Trembling Madness in Stonegate.
The project has been bubbling away for 18 months or so before reaching this majestic climax.
The monks researched the historic Benedictine recipes, spoke to various breweries, decided on Little Valley, and then set to work gathering the ingredients they needed. Wim and Father Wulstan have also undertaken a series of enviable fact-finding trips to the seven revered Trappist monastery breweries (six in Belgium, one in the Netherlands) to study the recipes and techniques of the European masters.
The Ampleforth beer cannot itself be called a Trappist ale, a designation reserved exclusively for beers made within the confines of such monasteries – but its official link with Ampleforth means it is instead what the Belgians would call a Recognised Abbey Beer.
Whatever one calls it, those involved are more than happy with its provenance and classification, and are justifiably delighted with the end result.
Gillian Dewar, from the Abbey, says: “The recipe goes back to the 1600s when our community was in France and given the right by Louis XIV to make the beer. When they were expelled from France they carried on making it, but we have not made it here for a long time.
“The feedback has been good and hopefully if it continues to go down well, we will make it permanent.”
Sue Cooper, at Little Valley, says it has been an enjoyable collaboration for both parties, and says the brewery has been delighted to be involved.
“It’s been fantastic and a bit of a first,” she says. “And it’s a good beer – perfectly suited to its purpose.”
Wim, who is Dutch but has lived in England for 12 years, is a master brewer, having previously been a food scientist, and Sue says this has been one of his most enjoyable projects.
“Brewers are very innovative and real craftsmen and women, so being involved in this is, for Wim, probably a highlight.”
Aficionados and enthusiasts will be keen to see how it compares with the Belgian Benedictines’ beers, but Sue is confident that it holds its own and that perhaps – just perhaps – Ampleforth could soon become a place of pilgrimage not only for the faithful, but for ale connoisseurs.
THERE are some Jubilee beers and events you may want to look out for this weekend:
• Q-Queenie by Brass Castle Brewery in Pocklington will be available at Judsons and The Feathers in Pocklington.
• The Waggon and Horses in York has about ten Jubilee beers on over the long weekend.
• York Brewery has produced Diamond 52, available in its own pubs and elsewhere.
• Luvly Jubly, a golden ale by Yorkshire Heart Brewery in Nun Monkton is available at the Guy Fawkes and Royal Oak in York, the Water Rat in Ripon, the Anchor in Boroughbridge and the Three Tuns in Osmotherly.
• Theakston has brewed Royal Salute, which should be widely available.
• And if you want away from it all…. The Fulford Arms is a Royal-free zone and anyone mentioning the J-word will be asked to pay a fine into the charity box.